There are historical events that are just that, vaguely-remembered memories of events past that are of interest mostly to professional historians. And then there are momentous events that shape a nation’s consciousness for better or worse for generations to come. One such event for the Greeks is the massacre at Smyrna at the end of WWI nearly a 100 years ago. Just in time to remind us of this consequential tragedy is a new book by the German historian, Heinz A. Richter, a rare impartial look at one of the events that colors Greek national identity like few others. Nor is this reminder of historical significance alone. For it is the case that Turkey’s Islamist dictator, Erdogan and the subservient to him Islamist press, ever more openly question the legitimacy of the Lausanne Treaty, that set up Turkey’s present borders, and imply various territorial claims from Greek islands to Iraqi oil-rich provinces. There are also much wider international implications to that long-ago conflict, since the Middle East turmoil we have been observing was set in motion by the artificial borders established at the time by British and French imperialist strivings and the radical efforts of Mustafa Kemal to modernize Turkey, that have now triggered the furious Islamist counter-assault by Erdogan.
By 1919, WWI was in its final stages and one thing that was clear was that the centuries-old Ottoman Empire was on its death bed, triggering a feeding frenzy among the powers of the day to pick up the pieces. These included not only the great powers of the day (Great Britain, France and Russia, which had just experienced the Bolshevik revolution), but also smaller actors like Italy and Greece that hoped to profit from the dismemberment of the empire feast. It was, in fact, the least powerful country in that feast, that, however, harbored the greatest misplaced ambitions and ultimately paid the greatest prize for them – Greece. Beginning even before their emancipation from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the Greeks had nourished a great nationalist dream known as the ‘Megali Idea’ (the Great Idea). In essence, the Megali Idea called for uniting all Greeks in Europe and Asia Minor in one state with its capital in Constantinople, in effect restoring the Byzantine Empire. Given the realities on the ground this was never more than a fantasy, but many Greeks stubbornly held on to it.
To them, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was just the right time to make the fantasy a reality, especially because the prime-minister at the time, Eleftherios Venizelos, was perhaps the most zealous Megali Idea partisan. And so Greece, which supported the Entente powers, sent an army
to Smyrna (today’s Izmir) on May 15, 1919, ostensibly to protect the local Greek population, but with much larger plans beyond. Eventually, it mobilized a huge army of 200,000 and set about to march on Ankara and defeat the hated Turks once and for all. The Turks, in the meantime had no army and had just begun to get organized militarily as the Turkish National Movement, under Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli. The Greeks scored numerous victories until they were stopped at the Sakarya River, barely 50 miles from Ankara. With logistics and lines of communication hopelessly overextended, the Greeks had come to the end of the road and once the Turks got organized and equipped, they stood no chance. A year later, they were pushed back in panic to Smyrna where Turkish revenge awaited. It did not help that the Greeks had practiced scorched earth tactics during their retreat. The Greek and Armenian parts of Smyrna were set on fire and between 50,000 and 100,000 of them were slaughtered before the lucky ones were evacuated by allied ships. In the aftermath, 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor were exchanged for 500,000 Turks in one of the first cases of organized ethnic cleansing. Thus ended the-not-so-Great-Idea.
There is an interesting historical incongruity to Greek –Turkish hostility. It is a fact that during much of the Ottoman period, the Greeks enjoyed a privileged status above all Christians in the empire. They were endowed with it as early as the rule of Mehmet II, the Conqueror, who abolished all rivals to the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, gave him the rank of pasha and wide ecclesiastical and secular powers over the Orthodox Christians in the empire. During the long centuries of Ottoman rule, Greeks, for the most part, controlled the five most important positions that non-Muslims could hold in the empire: the Patriarch, the leaders (hospodars) of the two principalities Wallachia and Moldavia) and the two official head translators, (Dragoman of the Porte and Dragoman of the Fleet) who controlled all diplomatic correspondence and communications in the sultan’s government.
By Alex Alexiev
 Heinz A. Richter, Griechisch-turkischer Krieg 1919-1922, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017